stand up comedy

The Artistry of Stand Up Comedy

1 October 2015.  I think there is a quiet prejudice against comedy as an art form circulating in our current cultural environment, and I think I unconsciously absorbed this prejudice without realising it.  The Arts Council does not fund comedians, and in August The Independent reported on a letter sent from prominent comedy organisations to the Arts Council’s Chief Executive, asking that comedy be supported alongside the other art forms, particularly emerging comedians.  The Arts Council’s rationale is not that comedy is not a relevant art form, but that it is already commercially self-sustaining as a sector. But I wonder if there is something a bit unconscious, a bit ambiguous at work here.  The nature of my own prejudice was like that – unconscious, ambiguous, ambient – but it seems as if the trickster spirit of the Edinburgh festival this year decided it was time for me to understand, explore and ultimately transform this into a more mature awareness of comedy as a serious art form, with its own powers, techniques and peculiarities of expression.

I could feel the jostling of different artistic worlds at the festival – dance, comedy, burlesque, circus, visual art, and of course the full spectrum of theatres – and it was almost as if they were tribes, assigned the colours that flag their category in the pages of the huge festival programme. This year the festival seemed to unfurl a yellow brick road of comedy in front of me, in a slightly insistent way, and which was somewhat contrary to my inclinations.  I was extremely curious about the way this happened, and it made me realise I was unconsciously harbouring a quiet prejudice against comedy, which felt like something that was floating in the air, something I accidentally picked up along with my flyers on the Royal Mile. It was a refrain you heard: ‘comedy is taking over the festival’. And at first I judged that comedy would not answer my deeper soul’s urgings to be moved in a profound way by artistry. Of course I was wrong.

Of the comedians I saw at Edinburgh this year, there were two young, newish comics, a seasoned regular and one Old Master that tipped me into deep consideration of the artistry in comedy: Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee. 

Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian based in London who enchanted me with her show Bubblewrap.  She has perfect, whimsical, poetic English, is deliciously funny, and I was deeply impressed by the power, vision and subtlety of her mind and material.

Sofie’s show laid bare a deeply personal and painful aspect of her childhood and explored her teen self’s mentally disordered coping mechanism in response to it, which was an obsession with the boy band Westlife.  She became Denmark’s Number One Westlife fan and was somewhat famous herself in this capacity, appearing on television and radio, and getting the chance to meet the band on several occasions.

The Westlife material was presented as an illustrative flashback to a story from her more recent life that explored her journey to accept her beauty and sexuality, against a backdrop of self-harm and self-rejection.  This makes it sound dark, but every idea Sofie touched turned into mirth, so that the show as a whole was a balanced tragicomic shimmer.  I found this act of excavation of the most deeply personal aspects of self very powerful, because it was as if she was saying, ‘here, let’s look at this together, because it is my personal experience of a universal aspect of being human, and I’ll show you how to laugh about it, and by laughing we can transform it together in this theatrical space.’

Another show I had seen earlier in the day was Rituals for Change by None of Us is Yet a Robot, featuring Emma Frankland, whose performance in Don Quijote  (when she was Tom Frankland) was one of my favourites of late.  In Rituals for Change I found Emma using the same kind of theatrical expression that had enthralled me in Don Quijote, this time to explore her gender transformation.  The show was a progression of physical theatre gestures that were brilliant and rich metaphors exploring progressive angles of Emma’s transformation – the set was a building site, fertile with piled dirt, buckets of water, planks of wood, tools and scaffolding, which was constructed, de-constructed, moulded, made, and un-made in a beautiful evocation of the fluid materiality of the human body and gender.

The two shows were similar for the raw depths of personal excavation in their respective theatrical spaces.  It made me reflect that similar artistic magics were being performed, though one performer used a serious tone, physical theatre staging and props, a structure of linked vignettes, narrative and music, and the other used a comedic tone, a long thread of linked autobiographical stories, the setting of a warmly lit room, a different and more direct dialogue with the audience and sophisticated wordplay with frequent full-chord presses of the multiple levels of meaning, which made the audience laugh a lot.

At this point, I began to realise that comedy is just a different quadrant on the spectrum of theatres, with its own particular artistic materials, and to see that there are some artists making this sort of theatre with depth, nuance and subtlety (and some who are not, of course). Brecht was famously influenced by the comedians Karl Valentin and Charlie Chaplin, and he traced the origins of his idea of the epic (or dialectical) theatre to them.   In a way, the different theories of theatre all ask the same questions:  ‘what is the point of theatre?’ and ‘what does it do to the audience’ and ‘is this valuable?’

The belief behind Brecht’s ideology of the epic theatre was that the emotional catharsis that came from an audience’s immersion in a piece of theatre was not effective for moving the audience to change the real society outside the theatre.  He believed that in order to effect change, the theatre needed to encourage the audience to develop a critical perspective on society, to stand back and reflect upon it from a distance.  And he believed that this was best done by reminding the audience that the theatre was a representation of reality and not reality itself.

Stand-up comedy is so very Brechtian.  It is as if all comedians, consciously or unconsciously, exist at this pole of theatrical theory.  The frame of comedy itself is a large, obviously unreal, artistic construction, where every element of life is turned on its head and viewed from a comedic distance. And one of the most important aspects of comedy’s artistic world is its social conscience.  This is like the passionately beating heart around which all good comedy comes to life.

And it is interesting that wrapping the dark stuff of human existence around with laughter makes us feel more distant from it, and then perhaps more safe, more comfortable, and maybe more able to act in our own lives and societies…?  Although I’m not arguing here against immersion as a theatrical technique…how could I?  I’m so into it.  But there is room for both theories, for different ways of affecting people using art.  And it is true that catharsis and immersion feel really good – I had gone to Edinburgh hungry for it.  But the artistry of the comedians I saw also moved me, also changed me, but in a different way, and using different theatrical effects.

And speaking of Chaplin, the second comedy newcomer whose show made a deep impression on me was Mark Dean Quinn.  His show More Observation Without Comedy was a fascinating, poignant and extremely entertaining study in deadpan tragicomedy.  Quinn has an exquisitely light touch as a performer using comic materials, which is one of the ways it reminded me of Chaplin – he used silence, space, symbolic gestures, and gentle self-mockery to show glimpses of a real and private pain.

Like Emma Frankland’s show, it was a progression of vignettes and gestures, which explored the power dynamics in the unspoken social agreements we make in relationships, like, ‘I’ve just met you – can I trust you? At what point does trust begin between us?’ He unearthed profound and universal questions from the general field of ambiguity that we all live in, and it was fascinating to watch him explore them using a beautiful comedic language of absurdity and surreality.  He was a sad clown, exploring his sadness.  It was a beautiful and powerful show.

Both Hagen’s and Quinn’s shows are still carved into my imagination and memory several weeks later, in a way I can still go back to revisit.  They both had a sort of piercing quality.  This is not a definitive (or even clear) way of measuring their quality, but it feels significant to me.  And they felt different from the other ha-ha, laugh-a-minute, still enjoyable, but more blunt and less memorable comedy shows I saw.  It felt like they were both real artists who had chosen the materials of comedy as their frame and philosophical stance.

I saw both Hagen and Quinn in rooms in pubs, in tiny, cosy venues where I could practically reach out and touch them.  By contrast, I saw the famous comedian Stewart Lee in grander style in the Georgian Assembly Rooms: there were chandeliers, velvety seats, a big crowd of adoring fans, and a much larger literal distance from us to him.  He came on stage to the music from Bill’s death scene in Kill Bill, which I thought was a tremendously subtle and interesting opening flourish, considering that the common slang for a comedian’s failure is ‘dying’.

His comedy is like a series of concentric rings of meta-awareness, like inception inside the world of a single joke.  His whole set is one amazing joke, and within this he tells really, really long stories, each of which turns out to be a single, amazing joke, and these relate ironically, harmonically to the overarching joke, and when everything comes home in a big moment of coherence, it is hilarious, ingenious and satisfying.

His language is deeply poetic, and he pushes the boundaries of concepts practically off the edge of meaning, in a fascinating and thematically conscious way.  One of the most powerful themes he contemplated was the Fatal Risk of Doing Comedy.  He compared being a comedian to being a war hero and called the ghosts of dead clowns, like Robin Williams and Bill Hicks, onto the stage.

This was profound because it was a palpable reminder of the personal mechanics at work in comedy: that what a comedian does for his or her art is excavate  innermost soul and psyche, bring its deepest material up to the light, and ring this around with irony in a transformative way…and that he or she does this for the audience, for the greater good of society, because this process transforms what is deep, dark, ambiguous and scary into a new, enlightening awareness, which helps us to handle it and understand it.

It was serious and tragic at the same time that it was brilliant, funny, enlightening and reflective of the art of comedy, because it reminded us that some of the artists who are called to this sort of service don’t make it, because the dark is too dark, and the fear is too much, and the ambiguity too overwhelming.  And so here it was again: that tragicomic shimmering of things that were funny/sad/true/universal… and I felt contemplative, expanded and lit up on different levels by this Old Master.

And I need to at least mention James Acaster.  I want to tell you how much I liked him and why.  But his was the last show I saw in Edinburgh, and by the time I reached his comedy doorway and fell through it, I was pretty much like the guy who sits in the middle of the backseat of Wayne Campbell’s Pacer during Wayne’s World’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene.  That is to say, I was partied out.  I was barely hanging onto consciousness and sanity at that point…but James, sweet James, kept me hanging on a bit longer, until I could have another coffee and crawl back to the absinthe bar.  I do remember that his show included a rather adorable and deft depiction of an existential crisis, and that through the haze of my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘…beautiful, theatrical, beautiful writing…oh my God, the end of the show is incredible…I wish I could lift my pen to take noteszzzzz.’

Of course I partied a lot in Edinburgh.  It was brilliant. And exhausting.  But my exhaustion revealed another interesting thing about comedy – its physiological effects, which are different to the other arts.  I started thinking about this on my second morning, when I was talking to my friend and Edinburgh roommate Sarah in a post-party haze of desultory girl chat, both of us just awake but not really ready to get out of bed.

Sarah is a doctor, a consultant in palliative medicine at a hospice, and we were talking about her upcoming course in acupuncture.  She was explaining the theory behind it, which is that the human body makes its own medicinal molecular cures for itself, which are called ‘endogenous compounds’, and apparently acupuncture stimulates the production of these healing compounds, which fit onto our broken cells in a perfectly complementary way that drugs can only clumsily replicate. I kept thinking about this all through my festival whirl, about how endogenous compounds were bubbling up inside me every time I laughed, circulating around in my blood, and it was as if the laughter kept healing and re-charging me.

It is nearly time to kiss you on both cheeks and say good-bye, but I have one more point to make about comedy, which I’ll make via Shaun Keaveny.  For those of you who don’t know, he is the morning show DJ on BBC Radio 6. I started listening to him eight years ago, and he is the purveyor of comedy who drops into my life in the most regular way, because of the format of his distribution.  He is brilliant, lyrical, high-concept and deeply silly in a way that I particularly adore.  He is right at the top of my Fantasy Boyfriend list, fighting it out with Jon Stewart.  One of the only painful parts of my festival was that I missed seeing his Edinburgh run of stand-up by only hours because of my travel.  Deep sigh.

But on my last night I was standing in a queue for the ladies loo in the Pleasance Courtyard, and at some point I glanced up to the wall of posters running up the stairs beside me, and I saw the man himself, in flat avatar poster form, posed in a suave GQ kind of way, of thoughtful mien and looking absolutely gorgeous in a grey jumper, advertising his show: ‘Shaun Keaveny: Live and Languorous’.  So I ripped the poster off the wall, along with a fair few fragments of baby blue Pleasance wall paint, rolled it up and put in my bag, and he’s now living on the wall in my writing nook, my first pin-up in 25 years.

It has been interesting to write this essay and think about Shaun in terms of comedic artistry.  It has prompted me to deconstruct and understand my adoration of him, which until now has been instinctive but unexamined.  And what I think about Shaun is that he is like swans.  I live in Cambridge on a street that goes down to the river, and I see swans every day.  I see them quiet in the dawn with the sun rising over the river, and I see them sleeping and still, floating with their heads tucked away, with one awake sentry, when I am cycling home along the river late at night in the dark.  And I never think that they are less sublime and beautiful because they are so common.  I think, ‘if they were rare, people would travel from all over the world to see them – just to get one glimpse!’  And Shaun’s comedy feels like that to me…like artistry that happens to be just easily available.

And in general, this is what comedy feels like to me – like something powerful, sublime and special that is everywhere, and which perhaps as a result is somewhat taken for granted as an art form.  And perhaps it is the case that the commercial success of more blunt, less artistic comedy has tainted our perception of the whole genre.  But I think it’s time to have a closer look at the way subtle, nuanced and artistic comedy is valued in our cultural oeuvre.  I found truth, beauty and depth in some of the comedy I saw at Edinburgh, which are the subtle fragrances that, to me, signal artistry.  And I felt that parts of me were healed and enlightened by these encounters.  And, of course, I laughed and laughed and laughed.  For which, Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[An edited version of this essay was published in Exeunt Magazine on 1 October 2015.]

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